Waterloo native Craig Unger’s path to becoming general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals’ Class AAA affiliate in Memphis, Tenn., didn’t go by the book.
The 1995 Gibault High School graduate went to Webster University to study audio production.
“I wanted to go on tour with bands and run live sound for events — that type of stuff,” he said. “But I had a professor who said, ‘Why don’t you do an internship in radio?’ I was like, ‘Oh, OK.’ So I got into radio, and the first couple of years I was in the news department (at KTRS-AM 550). Then I went into management. Being in radio is not something that was my projected career path when I was in college.”
Not that Unger, 39, ever concerned himself with such a small detail.
After nearly 10 years at KTRS, where he eventually became station manager, Unger was hired by the Cardinals to work in corporate sales and marketing. In 2010, he played a major role in bringing the Cardinals’ radio broadcasts back to KMOX-AM 1120 after five seasons on KTRS.
Then in April 2014, when the Cardinals in 2016 sold majority interest in the Redbirds to private investor Peter Freund, Unger became Memphis’ general manager.
He has since added team president and minority owner to his evolving list of job titles.
“It would not be the regular path you would tell someone, ‘Hey, if you want to get into minor-league baseball, here’s what you do: Go into radio first,’” Unger said with an easy chuckle. “You look around the room in minor-league baseball ... and people started with a Single-A team or a Double-A team and just sort of worked their way up.
“Had you said to me 20-something years ago when I was at Gibault that some day I would be the GM of a minor-league baseball team, I probably would have told you you’re crazy.”
Wearing different hats
Unger isn’t your typical general manager. In the minor leagues, the emphasis is on player development and promoting a fun, entertaining atmosphere for fans on game days.
Unger, unlike John Mozeliak and Michael Girsch with the parent Cardinals, neither orchestrates trades nor makes roster transactions.
In fact, Unger said his interaction with Mozeliak, the Cardinals’ president of baseball operations and former general manager, and Girsch, who replaced Mozeliak as general manager June 30, is limited.
“They come down here and visit,” Unger said. “But they don’t ask my opinion on players. Nor do they want my opinion on players. That’s their job. I’m a business guy. That’s what we do here. We’re marketing, we’re sales, we’re business-oriented. We let the experts in St. Louis do what they do best, and that’s building the rosters and doing what they’ve done this year.
“This is the way it’s designed (to work). The Triple-A, Double-A, Single-A levels are there to grow talent to support the big-league club. For us, it’s exciting to see the (Memphis) guys go up and have an impact in St. Louis.”
Girsch has an appreciation for Unger, knowing how a general manager in the minor leagues has to be a jack-of-all-trades.
“He’s out there pulling the tarp when they need help, he’s selling tickets, he’s selling sponsorship agreements and taking care of the stadium,” Girsch said. “He wears a lot of hats down there, and he’s done a great job.”
Girsch complimented Unger for his enthusiasm and initiative.
“For that kind of role, passion is incredibly important,” Girsch said. “You’re doing all sorts of stuff. ... Having that passion and being able to share that passion with the community and getting them excited is a big part of what he does.
“Craig’s the kind of guy that will figure out what needs to be done and take care of it, not just wait for someone to tell him what to do. That’s his personality – high-energy, high passion. He’s always looking to make things better.”
This season, 11 players have made their big-league debuts with the Cardinals after being summoned from Memphis. Among them are outfielders Harrison Bader and Magneuris Sierra, shortstop Paul DeJong, first baseman Luke Voit and pitchers Jack Flaherty and John Brebbia.
“They see when they’re here, they’re going to get opportunities,” Unger said of the call-ups. “And when opportunities present themselves, they’re going to go up to the big leagues and make an impact and show what they can do.
“That’s exciting. It’s fun for us — as a staff and as baseball fans. I can see guys here during the day and see them play in a game that night in St. Louis or the next day. It’s fun to see them have their dreams come true and have that opportunity to move up to the big leagues.”
Shortstop Aledmys Diaz, however, a star in St. Louis last year, slumped in his second season and was returned to Memphis, where he has remained. Outfielders Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty also have been shipped to Memphis this season.
I can see guys here during the day and see them play in a game that night in St. Louis or the next day.
Each day, Unger checks his roster to see who’s available for the game that evening.
“I always joke with people that I’m usually the last person to know anything,” Unger said. “I see (moves) on Twitter like everybody else. All the baseball operations come out of St. Louis.”
Unger doesn’t mind the roster turnover, pointing out that every team must deal with similar situations, including the other three participants in the Pacific Coast League playoffs.
Despite the fluid composition of the roster, the Redbirds, managed by former Cardinals infielder Stubby Clapp, won a franchise-record 91 games. They defeated Colorado Springs, a Milwaukee Brewers affiliate, in the best-of-five semifinals of the PCL postseason. They were scheduled to face the El Paso Chihuahuas, a San Diego Padres affiliate, in Game 1 of the championship series beginning Wednesday.
“We’ve had 61 different players on the roster here in Memphis,” Unger said. “You talk about a 25-man roster. We’ve turned it over 130, 140 percent. That’s a lot of turnover. I think it’s a testament to the coaching staff and to Stubby Clapp, our first-year manager, in being able to manage that.
Girsch can relate.
“Whether you’re talking about Unger, Stubby Clapp or anyone down there, it’s the hardest job in baseball,” Girsch said. “You’re getting pulled from above and below. Any (player) who does well disappears because they go somewhere else to play. Those people do a great job dealing with all the change, and they’ve had a great season. ... They’ve got a lot of personalities to deal with, but they’ve kept that ship moving.”
Clapp calling shots
Clapp, 44, was a fan favorite in St. Louis when he briefly played for the Cardinals in 2001, batting .200 (5 for 25) with two doubles and one RBI in 23 games.
Unger described Clapp as a detail-oriented manager who wants his team to play hard, pay attention to detail and have fun. Lots of it.
“He says, ‘Hey, we go out and play every single day as hard as we possibly can. We don’t worry about tomorrow or anything else. Let’s go out and take care of business today and have fun doing it,’” Unger said. “That’s the player he was, and that’s the manger he is. He’s instilling that in this group here. You see that by the way the Redbirds have played, but I think you also see it as the players go up to St. Louis and the fun that they’re having when they get up there.”
When Clapp became Memphis’ new manager last November, Unger was eager to tap into Clapp’s popularity as a player.
The 5-foot-8, 175-pound Clapp was with the Redbirds from 1999 until 2002. He was a player many believed didn’t have the skill set to reach the major leagues.
“I saw this huge opportunity from the business side because of Stubby’s status here in Memphis,” Unger said. “He played several seasons here and was known for the backflip that he did just like Ozzie (Smith). He was essentially noticed as the mayor of Memphis. He owned this town in 2000 and 2001. He was this scrappy little player who, against the odds, went out there and competed hard. His uniform was always dirty. That’s what he brings to this team now.”
He wears a lot of hats down there, and he’s done a great job.
Cardinals GM Michael Girsch on Craig Unger
Bader has had two stints with the Redbirds this season and said Clapp is a key to their success.
“To see him kind of put together such a good team and take them this far obviously speaks a lot to the way he manages and the type of manager he’s going to be moving forward,” Bader said. “I’m glad I was part of that first go-around, and I’m definitely going to remember it.”
DeJong said the former Memphis players have been able to help the Cardinals because of the culture that was developed.
“We all kind of jelled together and Stubby fit right along in there with culture,” DeJong said. “When we’re out there on the field together, we’re picking each other up, and it’s us playing the game.”
Unger has worked with Memphis’ past two managers, too, both of whom are now coaches with the Cardinals: Ron “Pop” Warner and Mike Shildt.
Unger recently traveled to Williamsport, Pa., site of the Little League World Series, and caught up with Warner and Shildt before the Cardinals played Pittsburgh at legendary Bowman Field.
Memphis’ pitching coach is Carlyle native Bryan Eversgerd.
“‘Gerdy’ has been here a long time,” Unger said. “He’s another guy that just has fun all the time. He’s always got a smile on his face. He’s about business, and he’s got his pitchers doing what they’ve got to do, but he’s having fun while he’s here.”
Running the show
Unger, a lifelong Cardinals fan, oversees 30 full-time employees in ticket sales, corporate sponsorships, group sales, season tickets, accounting, operations and marketing.
“It’s different than anything I could have imagined this job was going to be,” Unger said. “It’s fun to put your stamp on an organization and oversee a whole bunch of different things.
It would not be the regular path you would tell someone, ‘Hey, if you want to get into minor-league baseball, here’s what you do: Go into radio first.’
Memphis Redbirds General Manager Craig Unger
Unger and his wife, Columbia native Pamela (formerly Kelemetc), have three daughters ages 13, 11 and 7, all of whom are involved in sports and have taken an interest in baseball. Craig Unger said the family plans on a long stay in Memphis.
“This is my passion now,” Unger said. “I love running the whole thing. ... We want to grow this business, grow the attendance and grow the brand.
“So we’ll begin to dig in and create the next round of great promotions and great fun, and we look forward to people from St. Louis and Belleville and the metro-east coming down here and visiting us in Memphis.”
David Wilhelm: @DavidMWilhelm